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Opinion | Remember When Bill Clinton Was Accused of Trading White House Access for Political Favors?


“Heard from White House — Assuming President Z convinces trump he will investigate/‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington.”

So wrote Kurt Volker, until recently President Trump’s special envoy to Ukraine, to Andrey Yermak, an adviser to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, on the morning of July 25, the same day Mr. Trump asked Mr. Zelensky for “a favor” in their now-infamous phone call. Among a trove of encrypted texts that Mr. Volker turned over to Congress last week, this message is brief and informal. It is also a textbook example of a quid pro quo, one intended to advance not American foreign policy goals but Donald Trump’s re-election.

As the Ukraine scandal continues to unfold, there has been much disagreement about whether Mr. Trump withheld nearly $400 million in military aid to the former Soviet republic in an attempt to bully its government into pursuing investigations that would benefit him politically. Mr. Trump had demanded that Ukraine look into whether former Vice President Joe Biden misused his office to protect his son Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company. (There has been no evidence to suggest this.) He also wanted an inquiry into the (debunked) conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee in 2016. Democrats say Mr. Trump’s extortion attempt is undeniable, and even a few Republican lawmakers have expressed discomfort. But most members of the president’s party have stuck by him, insisting that a direct connection is not clear.

But Mr. Volker’s offer of July 25 could not have been more clear: If Mr. Zelensky agreed to give Mr. Trump the investigations he so desperately wanted, then Mr. Trump would give Mr. Zelensky the White House visit he so needed as a sign of the United States’ continued support of Ukraine in its conflict with Russia. It is an exchange so explicit that even Mr. Trump’s fiercest apologists cannot wish it away.

If further clarification is needed, several of the other texts Mr. Volker provided lay out the details of the negotiations and clarify just how serious Mr. Trump was about what another American official called “the deliverable.” Before a White House visit could be confirmed, Trump officials expected Mr. Zelensky to formally and publicly announce the desired investigations. Mr. Volker even typed out what appears to be recommended language to send to Mr. Yermak.

Mr. Yermak obviously grasped the terms of the agreement, but he seems to have suspected the Americans might not be as good as their word. In an Aug. 13 text, he told Mr. Volker: “I think it’s possible to make this declaration and mention all these things. Which we discussed yesterday. But it will be logic to do after we receive a confirmation of date.”

Once upon a time, Americans — and especially Republican lawmakers — used to worry a great deal about access to the White House being traded for cheap political gain.

When allegations arose of campaign-finance irregularities in the 1996 presidential election, including that Chinese interests had illegally funneled donations to the Clinton-Gore re-election effort, the Republican-controlled Senate started an investigation to determine whether any top campaign officials, or possibly even Vice President Al Gore, had been knowingly involved. Among other excesses, Mr. Gore violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the law by making fund-raising calls from his office (this episode provoked Mr. Gore’s notorious “no controlling legal authority” news conference). From July to October 1997, the Governmental Affairs Committee, led by Fred Thompson of Tennessee, held public hearings on the matter.

On the House side, another Republican, Dan Burton, spearheaded a far more extensive investigation, which spanned two Congresses, cost upward of $7.4 million and turned the overzealous Mr. Burton into a political punch line.

Concerns about White House access weren’t limited to the corrupting influence of foreign actors, either. The Clintons’ practice of rewarding big donors with sleepovers in the Lincoln Bedroom drew widespread condemnation when it came to light in 1996. The Senate majority leader at the time, Mississippi’s Trent Lott, called for an independent prosecutor to investigate the Democrats’ 1996 fund-raising — a request rejected by the Clinton Justice Department. David McIntosh, then a Republican House member from Indiana, put it simply: “Very clearly, it is wrong to use government property, government assets for political purposes.”

In its investigation, the Justice Department wound up securing guilty pleas or convictions from multiple players, including some with longstanding ties to the Clintons.

The Times editorial board was vocal in its own concern about the campaign-finance practices of the Clinton era. “Using the White House and Camp David for sleepovers has tarred the presidency and cheapened institutions that should be above political advantage,” a Times editorial noted in 2000, when the issue popped up to haunt Hillary Clinton’s first Senate run. During the investigations, the editorial board accused Democrats of being “involved in a finance system that was running amok throughout 1996. Money was being harvested while benefits ranging from jobs on obscure presidential commissions to nights in the Lincoln Bedroom were being handed out like candy.” In early 1997, the board backed the call for “an independent counsel to check the vice president’s reading of the law and the legality of the entire Democratic fund-raising operation.”

Such concerns seem nearly quaint now. Mr. Trump isn’t yet known to be hosting pay-to-play pajama parties or dialing for dollars from his office. He has warped American foreign policy and directed administration officials to put the interests of his re-election campaign above those of American national security. This is not merely tacky or ethically dubious. It is a flagrant violation of his oath of office — one that should be of grave concern to lawmakers of both parties.

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